Tribes of Israel
Tribes of Israel iStock

We read in our Parasha(2:1-2):’Hashem spoke to Moshe and Aaron, saying: The Children of Israel shall encamp, each man by his banner according to the insignias of his fathers’ household, at a distance surrounding the Tent of Meeting shall they encamp’.

The Parasha then describes the division of the twelve tribes, the two sons of Yosef being counted separately, to complete the number, as the tribe of Levi is not part of this commandment, its camp being in the middle of the camps of the other tribes, as we read (2:17):’The Tent of the Meeting, the camp of the Levites, shall journey in the middle of the camps; as thry encamp, so shall they journey, everyone at his place according to their banners’.

Why did Hashem command this intriguing formation?

Answer our Sages:’When Hashem descended on Mount Sinai, to give Bnei Israel his Torah, He was accompanied by a horde of twenty-two thousand angels, all of them by their banners; on seeing this, Bnei Israel yearned that they too should merit to be so assembled. Said Hashem: ‘By your lives, I shall fulfill your desire! He immediately commanded Moshe: Go and make them banners as they crave. Further, assemble them with their banners, for the sake of My Name, because they are my sons and my army’.

The Kli Yakar expounds that this yearning of Bnei Israel, to be ‘like’ the heavenly host they saw at Matan Torah, was to show all the nations that Hashem’s Name was called on them, as it was on the angels, so that all would fear them. By being assembled to the four winds, and the Shechina and the Ark of the Torah being in the middle, all would see that they bore in the Name of Hashem.

‘Their banners were a sign of victory in battle, and taught that ‘not by their swords would they inherit the Land’, but by bearing Hashem’s Name.

‘This, too, as brought in another Midrash, in their response to the pleas of the nations that they ‘join’ them, offering to give them exalted ranks in their midst: how, responded Bnei Israel, can you compare temporal honor to the eternal honor of being Hashem’s army’?’.

The Netivot Shalom first asks: What led Bnei Israel to aspire to be like the heavenly host, that they saw at Matan Torah? What was so special about it, and how, as the Midrash we brought at the outset teaches, did Hashem’s acceding to the wish of Bnei Israel, show His love for them, as we read in Shir Hashirim (2:4): that by this, Hashem ‘clustered my encampments about Him in Love’?’.

Answers the Netivot Shalom:’In the heavenly army, as on earth, the purpose of a flag is to distinguish a nation from the other nations. In addition, within the earthly army, the different units each have their own banners, to denote their individual roles.

‘Bnei Israel saw the angels ‘banners, banners’, each angel having his own banner, as each angel has his own role in the service of Hashem.

‘This is what they yearned to emulate: that, like the angels, each of them should have his own unique role and way of serving Hashem, AND, most important, that he should know with certainty what his role was; that he should know the purpose for which he was created, and what was his mission in his life on earth.

‘By granting their wish to be like the angels they saw, and so envied, Hashem, showed His love for them, by granting them this clarity- and that their yearning found favor in His eyes.

‘This is why this Parasha is read before we again receive the Torah on Shavuot, to teach us that each Jew has his own unique role and part in the Torah; that he bears, as it were, a banner that signifies his role in Hashem’s army- and this knowledge is an essential preparation to ascend Har Sinai, and again receive the Torah’.

Rav Eliyahu Shlezinger adds:’This understanding is the answer to a concern that occurred to Moshe Rabbenu, when Hashem commanded him to divide the nation into four camps, each of three tribes, and designated the order in which they were to encamp and travel.

‘Said Moshe to Hashem: Won’t this division lead to the loss of the wonderful unity that Bnei Israel had attained at Matan Torah, being ‘as one man with one heart’? Answered Hashem: ‘You have no reason to be concerned about this, because all the tribes have a tradition from Yaakov Avinu, who, on his death-bed, guided by ruach hakodesh, divided them into these very same four divisions, to bear his body to its burial, and promised them that, in the merit of them doing his bidding, they would in the future also receive this role, surrounding the Mishkan, in their journey through the desert.

‘Wasn’t Yakov Avinu concerned, as was Moshe Rabbeinu, that this would lead to machloket between his sons? No, to the contrary, bearing in mind that each person is created to be different from all others, so too, understood Yaakov Avinu: each person has a different role to fulfill in his avodat Hashem, as ‘all that Hashem created, He created to honor Him’.

‘True, Hashem gave the Torah to Bnei Israel as one entity, ‘as one man with one heart’, but, at the same time, there are many paths to fulfill the Torah, which can only be achieved when each individual realizes that he can only fulfill his role, as a part of the whole.

‘To this end, the tribes were here separated, to fulfill their respective roles and ways of serving Hashem, but knowing that each is only one stone of the great building that is Am Israel.

‘Since each tribe realizes that this separation which the Torah itself has created, was also and equally granted to all the other tribes, this would not lead to dissension and disputes, as the rights of each one was dependent on the others also having the same rights’.

Rav Chaim Friedlander sweetens this message, by noting that, whilst each angel has his own place around Hashem’s throne, in accordance with his role, as our Sages say:’Hashem makes peace in the heavens; although the angel Michael is wholly ice, and the angel Gabriel all fire, they stand next to each other, yet neither has an adverse affect on the other.

‘True, there is a clash between their respective natures, but there is also a common thread: each only wants to serve Hashem.

‘As we say in our tefilla: ‘Each one of them accepts the yoke of Heaven, and gives leave to the others, to also serve Hashem, in their distinct ways’.

A parting gem from the Chafetz Chaim, who gives a beautiful justification of this division. When asked why there are so many ‘divisions’ within the Jewish oeople: chassidim and mitnagdim, sephardim and ashkenazim, and within each group further divisions, he replied: in a war between nations, each party does not restrict itself to one type of weaponry.

‘When fighting a bitter and wily foe, it is necessary to employ all of your forces and weaponry.

‘This is why it was necessary to use every segment of the nation, each with its own unique strength and weapons, in this fight against the yetser ha’ra. If this is necessary in physical battles, how much more necessary is it in the ultimate spiritual battle against the yetser ha’ra! Indeed, our Sages teach that Hashem gave us the Torah for this purpose: as our weapon against the yetser ha’ra.

‘In our Parasha the Torah teaches us the manner in which to utilize this Divine protection- each and every Jew playing his part’.

לרפואת נועם עליזה בת זהבה רבקה ונחום אלימלך רפאל בן זהבה רבקה, בתוך שאר חולי עמנו.